Paying for News Interviews – is it ethical or just another example of: it’s not personal it’s business?

Paying for interviews? Rewarding executives or news makers or personalities for their bon mots?

Not in the old days – not when news wasn’t expected to make money – not before corporate ownership took hold and made news divisions responsible for their bottom line and turning a profit. But now, in the wild west of media frenzies thanks to networks, tabloids and scandal sheets, it’s anything goes – and the highest bidder may win, regardless of the terms or conditions associated with the interviewees’ demand.

This For Instant Ratings, Interviews With a Checkbook in a recent New York Times received very little attention, or so it seemed to me. I would have expected, maybe just hoped, for more attention to be paid to the consequences.

Once upon a time people appeared on media because it was truly an opportunity to reach a mass audience. Now thanks to a plethora of media there’s little doubt that any one can get attention, some times far too much or unwarranted attention.

Paying for interviews – or rather for access is not new. The Times piece makes it seem as if it is a recent development… it has existed for years – prime time programs have done it, programs with the most prominent of news anchors have done it. A wink and a nod and money is paid for family photos or archive material in the thin guise that this is the cover for what will become a guaranteed interview with the personality too.

It can be paid to the prospective interviewees, or it may come in the form of lavish wining and dining for friends or families. It happened during the Koby Bryant case, for John Mark Karr who confessed to the Jon Benet Ramsey killing, even to people associated with Phil Garrido who recently plead guilty to the kidnapping and rape of Jaycee Dugard. It’s just not new. And it feels skanky to do it – even when under the direct instructions of senior news managers in New York.

There are so many questions – if you pay, will some one be more forthcoming? If you pay too little, will they hold back? If you pay for one media does that count if some one else pays more for a different platform? Does payment change their story – are they more likely to juice it up to hike the price, or claim to know more than they really do — but money makes them be bold, even to the point of lying?

News divisions once had a policy that prohibited paying any one for a news story. That existed as a fire wall within news, but was not as rigid for prime time magazines or the morning shows which at some networks are produced by the entertainment divisions. Times have changed. Networks demand all programs produce a profit. And now news figures – even temporary news headliners – are sought after as exclusives. They may or may not have much to say – they may not even offer much to discourse or common knowledge – but they command payments just to speak. I don’t feel good about a lot of this whatsoever.

Knee Jerks & Reaction – Free speech or Gun Control?

Whether the tragedy in Arizona was caused by bulls-eyes on web sites or placards or vitriol may never be fully known. But in the response to this tragedy – to say or do something that will make us feel better – we again see a typical American response of “let’s put a band-aid on this” right away. There are already urgent calls for a quick-fix regardless of its long-term implications.

By Sunday there were calls in the media and Congress to restrict what can be said or used in political advertisements. There were calls to limit free speech. There were calls to put limits and penalties on what could be said in a country where it has been our historic right to protect free speech – even when some of what is said is odious.

It seems peculiar that these proponents are seeking to put a fix on free speech instead of looking at the real problem – the absolute proliferation of handguns – semi automatic weapons better suited for war than for sale at a sports store to an individual who will most likely plead an insanity defense for his senseless and selfish actions.

It would be a sad ending to this tragedy that our rights become victims of emotional decisions and knee jerk reaction.

Stupid is as stupid does – again

Sitting in for Sean Hannity on FOX News this week Tucker Carlson called for Michael Vicks execution for pet abuse. Gawker has the clip.
Is this for ratings? Attention? Is it racism? Is it just reality TV?

The question of why the FOX bosses allow this is obvious – cloaked in “free speech” it garners attention and column inches, like these.

But is any one thinking of the longer term damage to discourse? Of course, if it is Tucker’s opinion calling for executions of pet abuses, then he’s welcome to it. Maybe he wants his own show again and feels this is the best way to accomplish that goal. But it just doesn’t pass the smell test of reasonableness… So why say it? For effect? For attention? One can only surmise he was motivated by being quote-worthy. He succeeded. But at what price?

What is the price for discourse? What is editorially responsible? Where is the line? Where are the editors? The managers? The grown-ups?

National Security Trumps the Right to Know, Sometimes Even the Opportunity to Ask

The recent gas explosion that destroyed a neighborhood in San Bruno, California offers another example of police and local authorities using the drape of “national security” to push the media back from the scene, to refuse to answer questions, and to deny access to maps and other documents that would give knowledge and comfort to residents, rate payers and tax payers.

Before the dawn of the morning following he explosion I was ordered back from an intersection more than a mile from the fire by a sergeant of the Pacifica (California) police acting as part of a mutual aid response. Why couldn’t we remain where we were parked – and had been parked for some 12 hours? “National Security” was his response as if by declaring those 2 words it precluded any further discussion or need for explanation. One could surmise if we refused to move the skies would be filled with black helicopters and the streets with black SUVs as federal law enforcement would leap from these vehicles as if clowns packed into too small a car in a circus ring.

“National Security” is all one needs to say now in defense of any argument or inquiry. Why can’t the utility PG&E release maps of outs gas lines? “National Security.” I suppose they are worried that terrorists with backhoes will soon be digging up streets to cause unimaginable destruction.

I suppose if I trusted those making the assertion, that in fact there was a real threat I’d be more willing to comply with their instruction. It just so often seems to ring like a hollow excuse. It becomes a wild card for which there is no argument; it trumps all other discussion.

But we have been too-often toyed with before. We are told we can’t make pictures at an airport or along a public waterfront where joggers run and mothers stroll with baby carriages because it might give advantage to our enemies. How about the damage this Draconian approach might cause to a free and open society? Is this truly for our safety or is it window dressing in the absence of a better, more effective plan? It reminds me of the months following 9/11 when the California Highway Patrol assigned a patrol cruiser parked at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge as a final bulwark of security against a cascading truck aimed at the bridge towers. I so often saw the officer in that car asleep in his seat that I wondered how much real security was being provided as opposed to what might otherwise seem to be window dressing.

It is frightening to witness the erosion of media protection. It seems to be a step in the wrong direction to limit access, to thwart entry, and to restrict the free flow of information. If there is a real threat, then there is no argument. If there is no reason except for the desire of authorities to conduct their work free from the eyes of the media and the public, then this must be fought.

Anna Nicole Smith’s trial raises troubling questions about court managed media

The trial of Anna Nicole Smith’s boyfriend and her doctors in Los Angeles hasn’t yet begun and already it has raised interesting questions about the way courts try to manage high profile trials and the media.

Los Angeles County Superior Judge Robert Perry has announced he will root out stealth jurors who seek personal gain from jury service on this celebrity trial; he will cross check jurors for any criminal behavior they omit during voir dire, and he will allow attorneys questioning of prospective juror’s personal drug history, legal and illicit, even asking what prescription medicines they take.  That seems to be a trifecta for a very ambitious inquiry into juror’s behaviors, their present and past and poses the question, who is protecting the juror’s rights?

This is a trial which has already attracted considerable media interest.  But long after the trial has concluded, what happens to the information acquired by the court about both the legal use of medications or of drug abuse that’s put on the public record in terms of juror’s rights, their long-term ability to buy health insurance among other privacy concerns. To his credit Judge Perry has said he will release jurors who don’t want to be questioned about their personal histories before the court, but even that raises questions of doubt, to wit: Why not? What are they hiding?  This is a slippery slope where what is said, or not said, could become grounds for future decisions, some perhaps even individually harmful?

And there are the media concerns.

Associated Press Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch filed this about jury qualification on Thursday, “Perry plans to keep the names of jurors secret from lawyers, who complained that would make it impossible to track whether they were blogging or reporting on the trial via social networking websites.  The judge agreed to ask prospects if they have blogs or social media accounts. He also intends to ask his staff to check periodically to make sure jurors are not blogging about the case.”

It is evidence of a growing sophistication of courts about what jurors are doing both live and at home, sending tweets, doing extra research, and communicating in forums.  It also sends a certain chill in that judges traditionally admonish jurors not to discuss the case, but this could be a first where the court has announced  if it will take an aggressive, even proactive approach scanning for what it would define as inappropriate or extra curricular comment.

Perhaps most amusing was the judge’s awareness of the celebrity gossip site TMZ.com.  In an exchange with Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Renee Rose Judge Perry refused to grant a gag order while admonishing her that he was unsealing many of her motions. In an exchange reported by Deutsch, the Judge suggests he has already reached some conclusions, dare I say judgments about the caliber of media reportage and coverage, “I don’t think you should file under seal just because you don’t want the media to see it,” Perry said.
The prosecutor protested, “Everything I file ends up on TMZ,” Rose said.
“Who cares?” said the judge.
“Our jury pool is out there,” said the prosecutor.
“Do we even want people who watch TMZ on the jury?” asked the judge.
“We’re going to get them,” Rose said.
“I hope not,” said the judge.”

His judicious assessment of the quality and effect of tabloid television and its often salacious approach to celebrity coverage is justifiably troubling to courts.  The judge has decided to exclude cameras in court because, according to the Deutsch report, “he believes they are a negative influence and help create a “carnival atmosphere. “The problem with celebrity trials is it has a tendency to bring out kooks, frankly,” the judge said.” As if the presence of TMZ and the scores of global media encamped at his court-house door are not already sufficient to bring on the entertainment.

It doesn’t set a precedent; too many trials from Scott Peterson to Michael Jackson have been closed to cameras when, after the fact, attorneys in both cases revealed they would have preferred cameras  to assure better and more accurate reporting rather than what transpired when cameras were excluded.

While the temptation to request a bag of popcorn and watch the passing parade is almost irresistable, the questions raised both by limiting the media and unlimited questioning of the jury is troubling with long-lasting implications.

Except for Deutsch, as usual, we’re not hearing much about these issues in the media.  That raises the question, what has happened to the in-depth view, the coverage of the process of a case and not just its headlines and the scurrilous descriptions of the scoundrels in the case?

Ms. Smith died of a drug overdose in 2007; The defendants Dr. Khristine Eroshevich, Dr. Sanjeep Kapoor, and Smith’s former lawyer-boyfriend Howard K. Stern are charged only with conspiracy to provide drugs and not charged with causing her death.

Disclaimer – I was the pool producer for both the People of the State of California against Scott Peterson and against Michael Jackson.  I am also a friend of Ms. Deutsch.

Make comments and engage in a dialogue.  Silence is ominous and yields nothing toward improving the media.